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COACHING METHODS: Sports science and modern training are needed badly
KENYAN athletes won two gold, four silver and five bronze medals in the London Olympics. They did better in Beijing with four gold, four silver and four bronze.
Despite their reputation as the best middle- and long-distance runners, only Ezekiel Kemboi and David Rudisha won the gold in the 3,000m steeplechase and 800m respectively. Rudisha set a new world record.
They are supposed to be the best. As pointed out by Adharanand Finn in his book Running With the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth, of the top 20 fastest marathons ever run anywhere in the world, 17 were run by them, the other three came from neighbouring Ethiopia. In a period of 18 years (from the Tokyo 1991 World Athletics Championships to 2009 Berlin) Kenyan men won a total of 93 world and Olympic medals, 32 of them gold.
Finn should know. He ran with the Kenyans at Iten, Kenya, hailed as the running capital of the world. A decent runner himself, but wasted by years of lack of training, he decided to bundle his family to live in the land of extraordinary runners. Iten would have been just another inconspicuous town had it not been the nurturing ground of world-class runners. To put it in perspective, Rudisha was trained there, so too Mohamad Farah, the British double Olympic champion and Uganda's Stephen Kiprotich, who won the marathon.
Finn holed up in Iten, mingling with legendary coaches, runners, aspiring champions and barefoot schoolchildren. It is a town unlike any other. The truth is Kenyans have been running since they were kids. But one area stands out -- a small district in the Great Rift Valley opposite Lake Victoria. According to Jon Entine, in his groundbreaking work, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It, about 500,000 people, representing 1/2000th of mankind, lived in the area. Yet, its runners hold an incredible 20 per cent of major international distance running records. And, more remarkably, from one ethnic group -- the Kalenjins. Last year, 66 of the top marathon runners were Kenyans and all, not surprisingly, were Kalenjins.
The world took notice of African runners when Abebe Bikila won the marathon in the Rome Olympics with a record time of 2:15:66.2. He was not only the first Sub-Saharan African to win the gold but, more significantly, he did it barefooted. He won again in Tokyo in 1964 albeit wearing shoes. The Africans had arrived. The legend of African supremacy was reinforced in Mexico City in 1968 with Kipchoge Keino, Naftali Temu and Mamoi Wolde winning the 1,500m, 10,000m and marathon. The first two were Kenyans.
According to Finn, there was no proper training school for runners in Kenya prior to the 1970s. An Irish priest with no athletic background came to St Patrick's boarding school in Iten.
One of its students, Mike Bolt, won bronze in the 800m in 1972. Then came Brother Colm O'Connell, who made St Patrick's into one of the most successful athletics schools and cemented Iten as the mecca for runners.
Iten has produced the best. The who's who in coaching and running are all there. White runners run alongside African aspirants. When he was there Finn got acquainted with names like Christopher Cheboiboch, Daniel Komen, Asbel Kiprop, Emmanuel Mutai, Moses Tanui, legends all. He met young runners there, including Rudisha, another proud product of Iten.
But Kenyans have not been performing well of late. The warning signs were up some years ago. In the last two world championships, Kenyan men only won bronze in 5,000m and 10,000m.
"It was a fiasco," said Kenya's minister for sports, Dr Paul Otuoma, referring to London. He was suggesting an independent committee be set up to find out why. At home, the reaction was not too flattering.
"A horror show" was one of the headlines on the lacklustre performance. Kenyans were enraged. Finger-pointing has begun. The bitter disagreement between two governing bodies, the National Olympic Committee and Athletics Kenya, was cited as the main reason.
More telling is the call for the training and coaching methods to be revamped. What was once the gold standard of athletics training is now considered "overtaken by events". Kenyans can't keep winning by running the same way as the old champions did. Sports science and modern training are needed badly.
For Finn, who lived and ran with them, the fact that most Kenyan runners can't last long in the circuit is an eye-opener. Unlike legendary Ethiopians like Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, most Kenyans run well for a few years and then just fizzle out.
London was certainly a wake-up call.